updated: June 2007
Ethical Consumer's policy on animal testing has been to award companies a full negative mark if they are involved in non-medical testing and a half mark if they are involved in medical testing. This was based on the assumption that animal testing for medical products is required by law and has more ethical justification than non-medical testing as it is helpful and necessary to find cures for disease. Katy Brown seeks to review these assumptions.
The issue of animal experimentation is often portrayed as a moral dilemma between humans and animals. However, there is mounting evidence that the use of animals to test products for human use and to model human disease is actually unscientific, producing misleading and often dangerous results.
Differences between species at anatomical, physiological, cellular, molecular and genetic levels mean that drugs and other substances can and often do cause different responses in different species, rendering it inaccurate to extrapolate this data to humans.1
In addition, laboratory procedures can result in profound and lasting physiological changes which are likely to compromise or invalidate data obtained from animals.2 Comprehensive studies of comparative drug toxicology have revealed levels of discordance between results from animals and humans of up to 96%.3
A major new report commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that testing chemicals on animals is slow, expensive and often out-performed by modern test-tube methods.4
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 92% of drugs found safe and therapeutically effective in animal tests fail in clinical trials, due to their toxicity and/or ineffectiveness, and aren’t approved.5, 6 Of the 8% that are approved, over half are later withdrawn or relabelled due to severe, unexpected side effects.2 Adverse drug reactions to animal tested drugs (ADRs) are currently the fourth biggest killer in the western world after heart disease, cancer and stroke,3 killing 10,000 people annually in the UK alone.7
In the case of Merck’s anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, animal tests showed the drug to be safe, but increased heart-attack risk was found in human trials. Merck chose to ignore the human data, using the misleading animal data to help gain FDA approval.7 According to David Graham of the FDA an estimated 88-139,000 people suffered heart attacks linked to the drug. 30-40% of these were fatal.1 Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in September 2004.
Our closest evolutionary relatives are chimpanzees which are 97-99% genetically identical to humans, yet the differences resulting from this apparently low level of variation are vast. Chimps and humans suffer different diseases and find different substances toxic. A recently published paper in biology journal Biogenic Amines on non-human primates in medical research and drug development concluded that 'there was a paucity of evidence to demonstrate the positive contribution or successful translation of non-human primate research into human medicine.'3
Some scientists argue that animal models can be brought closer to the humans that they are attempting to study using genetic modification. However nearly all genetically altered models have failed to reproduce the essential features of the corresponding human condition.
Transgenic mice carrying the same defective gene as people suffering from cystic fibrosis do not show the lung infection that human sufferers do, because mice and humans have different metabolic pathways.2
Many important medical advances have been delayed by misleading animal derived data. Dr Albert Sabin, inventor of the polio vaccine, swore under oath before the US congress that “...prevention [of polio] was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.” 3
Tobacco companies were able to deny for years the link between smoking and lung cancer on the basis of animal studies and delay the introduction of health warnings, despite the link being demonstrated in humans.2
Increasing numbers of scientists and clinicians are challenging animal testing. A 2004 UK survey of GPs found that 82% were concerned that animal data can be misleading when applied to humans.7 The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Medical Research Modernisation Committee and Europeans for Medical Progress have over 10,000 scientist and physician members combined, most of whom are highly critical of animal experimentation.
Drugs can be developed without the use of animal data. Successful anti-HIV drugs were conceived and developed without the use of animals and given directly to humans with little supportive animal data. (NHP, MCRM) There are companies developing and testing drugs in a solely human context. Asterand (formerly Pharmagene) asserts that 'no animal species is sufficiently similar to man to act as a wholly reliable surrogate.
Indeed there is extensive evidence that the use of animal (non-human) tissue can result in the generation of potentially misleading information.'7 Biopta is a company which provides specialist contract research services focussing on human tissue, their rationale is 'proof of concept in man'.8
A wide range of non-animal testing techniques exist. Microfluidics are devices containing cells from various human organs, linked by tiny channels circulating a blood substitute, enabling drugs to be tested on a ‘whole system’.
Microdosing involves giving human volunteers radioactively labelled doses in minute amounts, allowing data to be gathered on drug absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) with virtually no risk of ill effects. The technique has been approved by the FDA and the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products.3
Accurate computer-based (in silico) human ADME data can be produced which is as accurate as in vitro methods and can shorten drug and chemical screening time from days or weeks to minutes.1 The US’s National Cancer Institute uses a screen of 59 human tumour cell lines to evaluate anti-cancer effects of candidate drugs, replacing animal testing for this purpose. Similarly many animal tests for viral vaccine safety have been replaced by far more sensitive and reliable cell culture techniques.2
Other techniques include microarrays and other DNA technologies, proteomics (the study of proteins), metabolomics (the study of the results of cellular processes), epidemiology (studies of human populations), human clinical research, post-marketing drug surveillance, autopsies and biopsies and a number of in vitro molecular biological methods. Brain function and neurological disorders can be studied using an array of non-invasive imaging techniques.
Testing requirements are determined at EU level and nationally under the UK Medicines Act. The EU Directive relating to medicines testing stipulates animal tests for single and repeat dose toxicity, whilst the UK version does not specifically mention animals at all. There are a range of other non-legally stipulated tests, regulatory requirements varying from drug to drug. A larger EU directive covering the use of animals in experiments generally specifies that animals should not be used if an alternative exists, and would in fact override the directive stipulating animal-based toxicity tests. In reality, however, animal tests are an established convention, expected by the regulators. A change in attitude at all levels is needed before non-animal methods are accepted.
The pharmaceutical industry has a great deal of influence over governments so could force such a change, but currently relies heavily on animal testing to get products onto the market, and as a legal sanctuary;2 in the case of disease or death, drug companies can claim that they have performed the legally prescribed safety tests so aren’t accountable.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
Most Western and majority world diseases are preventable. In the West diseases of affluence are the three most common; heart disease, cancer and stroke. In the majority world the commonest diseases are connected to poverty and consequent malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water and poor sanitation.
The millions of pounds spent trying to find cures for diseases would be better spent on preventative measures such as healthy living campaigns in the West, sanitation and other health projects in poorer parts of the world, and reduction of man-made pollution, which causes unknown quantities of diseases and deaths worldwide.
It has been argued that animal testing prior to human clinical trials is required so that drugs can be tested in a 'whole system'. The above information indicates however, that, the available whole (animal) systems are the 'wrong systems', so this argument fails to hold.
Using animals as a basis for medical research causes not only cause suffering and death directly through adverse drug reactions but also indirectly by delaying medical advancement and diverting research grants from more appropriate methods.
Under our ratings system, we mark down companies which have an inadequate policy on animal testing, as well as those carrying out the test. This means that we identify companies who might not conduct the tests themselves but who use ingredients tested on animals in their products.
The ratings which appear in our buyers’ guides reflect the practices of the whole company group, so if a company tests just one of it’s products on animals, the whole company will receive a negative animal testing mark.
So if you’re against animal testing, check our buyers’ guides before you go shopping, whether for moisturiser or a garden trowel, to reveal the companies with unlikely links to this cruel practice.
Find out more about our ratings.
Europeans for Medical Progress
British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV)
Dr Hadwen Trust
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Medical Research Modernization Committee
1. The Failure of Animal Tests of COX-2 Inhibitors, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2005.
2. A Critical Look at Animal Experimentation, Medical Research Moderisation Committee, 2006.
3. Non-human primates in medical research and drug development: a critical review, Jarrod Bailey, Biogenic Amines, Vol 19, No 4-6, pp 235-255, 2005.
4. Toxicity Testing in the Twenty-first century: a vision and a strategy, National Research Council, 2007.
5. www.fda.gov/oc/speeches/2004/phrma0403.html, viewed 10/07/07.
6. www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/criticalpath/whitepaper.pdf. viewed 10/07/07.
7. Europeans for Medical Progress, www.curedisease.net., viewed 18/07/07
8. www.biopta.com, viewed 18/07/07